Vancouver plans to spend almost half a million dollars on new initiatives aimed at tackling homelessness, poverty and mental health in three central city neighbourhoods, as concerns mount from some residents about a rise in crime and public safety during COVID-19.
The Vancouver program, approved by the city council last week with little publicity, will focus on the Downtown South, Mount Pleasant and Olympic Village, with soft approaches that include employing “peers” as non-confrontational mediators who can talk to people on the street (about, for example, alternatives to sleeping in doorways). That’s in contrast with harder approaches, such as more policing, taken by other cities that are grappling with similar challenges.
There are also measures for neighbourhood clean-up, more homelessness outreach to connect people to housing and services, and community sessions to educate Vancouver residents about “the impacts of trauma, colonialism, racism, gender-based violence, poverty, and unsheltered homelessness,” according to the city report on the pilot programs.
“We’re trying to make neighbourhoods safer for everyone. It is for all residents,” said Bruk Melles, the director of the city’s homelessness services and the lead author on the report that set out budgets of $440,000 overall for the new initiatives.
The initiatives come after increasing public concerns two years into the pandemic, which produced visible changes in the central city as poor and homeless people were forced out onto the streets as community services and businesses closed. Supports like drop-in centres went online and criminals adapted their theft patterns as people worked from home and left downtown offices and parkades empty.
Police statistics show crime patterns in Vancouver, as in many other cities around the world from Barcelona to Brisbane, changed dramatically during COVID-19. Incidents of theft from vehicles in 2021 were less than half of the 16,400 in 2019. Break-and-enters were down by 4,700 to 3,500 and theft under $5,000 was down from 13,000 reports to 9,000.
But assaults increased by 108 from the 4,500 that there had been for the city overall in 2019. That varied by neighbourhood, with central-city districts sometimes seeing more of certain types of crime. The West End had 436 assaults in 2021 compared to 347 in 2019 and weapons charges doubled from 21 in 2019.
Vancouver councillors Sarah Kirby-Yung, Lisa Dominato and Rebecca Bligh organized a public forum last week to talk about the issue because of the rising concerns, where several residents spoke of their fears of walking around in downtown Vancouver because of the more unsafe feel. The three councillors didn’t mention the city initiative in the two-hour forum, although they had voted in favour of it the day before.
Ms. Melles said Vancouver is forging its own approach to confront the issue, eschewing a crime-and-punishment focus that San Francisco, for example, chose in an emergency plan announced in December – endorsing such measures as enhanced policing and threats of jail.
“It is a bit homegrown. We’re really trying to look at the issues brought forward by everyone,” Ms. Melles said. “We’re trying to effect system change so it’s not going to be a silver bullet.”
The effort is getting some cautious praise from some who have been prominent in beating the drum about the city’s deterioration, as stories about window-smashing, violent shoplifting, random stranger attacks and general public disorder have proliferated during the pandemic.
“That’s pretty good,” said Marquis Wine Cellars owner John Clerides, who has posted a steady stream of pictures and comments on Twitter for months about what he sees as a decline in city safety.
Mr. Clerides believes the province should be doing more in terms of building housing that has the supports, security and rules needed for people with complex problems. But he also thinks there should be even more money for police, who currently get $340-million a year, and a tougher line on what’s acceptable, even if that means confining some people to an institution due to substance addiction or mental-health challenges.
“Is it fair for someone who doesn’t even know what they’re doing to be out on the street?” he said.
Provincial politicians say the NDP government has plans to build more than 20 “complex care” housing facilities that will have even more staff and supports than current high-support programs.
Green Party Councillor Pete Fry said some of the crime in Vancouver is legitimately scary to people.
“Rather than gaslight people and say it’s not happening, let’s deal with it,” Mr. Fry said. He thinks there needs to be a very hard line on egregious criminal behaviour, but help for others whose main problem is being homeless or using drugs on the street.
Despite the apparent consensus on the issues, the debate about public safety has become a very political one that is likely to be prominent in this year’s civic-election campaign. Mr. Clerides and some others are very critical of Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who they say doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the problem or be a strong voice.
Mr. Stewart dismissed the criticism as oppositional politics ahead of the upcoming election, and said he is working steadily on all the potential strategies, such as lobbying hard for complex-care beds in Vancouver – which is now supposed to be getting at least 200.
Mr. Stewart said he has faith that the Vancouver police will come up with new strategies to deal with the way crime and public disorder has been evolving. But he also doesn’t think more money for police is necessarily the solution.
“I think the concerns in particular neighbourhoods are genuine,” he said, “but nobody thinks we can arrest our way out of this.”
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